The Guardian view on Cambodia: a local crisis and a regional shift

Op-Ed: The Guardian

The Guardian view on Cambodia: a local crisis and a regional shift

The government has charged the opposition leader with treason and silenced independent media as strongman Hun Sen tries to hold on to power. But its actions reflect a broader dynamic
Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen
 Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen: more than three decades in power. Photograph: Samrang Pring/Reuters

Cambodia’s Hun Sen is one of the world’s longest standing leaders. His party has been happy to hold elections as long as it knows it is going to win, and to embrace underhand tactics or outright force  when things don’t go quite as planned. Another poll looms next year and, after more than three decades in his post, the prime minister and former Khmer Rouge commander says he has decided to continue for 10 more years to ensure stability.

Voters seem less keen on his unending tenure – and the Cambodian People’s Party knows it. A gradual expansion of space for civil society, activism and political activity went into reverse after the opposition united and did better than expected in 2013’s poll. The process accelerated last year as the CPP grew more nervous. It suffered again in this year’s local elections. It has overseen strong growth and reduced inequality. But there is widespread anger over rampant corruption and land grabs. An overwhelmingly young and increasingly urban population, more knowledgeable and sophisticated than their parents thanks to city life, social media and travel, feel they owe the government little.

Now the government has charged opposition leader Kem Sokha with treason, punishable by up to 30 years in jail, and has threatened to dissolve the Cambodia National Rescue Party if it does not disown him. He is accused of plotting with the United States to topple the government. Hun Sen’s real concern is clear and – as the previous opposition leader Sam Rainsy could testify – the tactics look awfully familiar.

Meanwhile, independent media have been silenced: a staggering $6.3m tax bill forced the Cambodia Daily to close , and radio stations carrying programmes from Voice of America and Radio Free Asia were shut down for supposed technical and administrative violations. Attacks on NGOs are intensifying.

The real shift in Cambodia is towards less western involvement, not more. The economy has grown and aid flows have diminished, reducing the government’s need to placate western donors. Meanwhile, China has pumped up aid, trade and investment without airing inconvenient human rights concern. These dynamics are evident elsewhere – look at the Philippines, Thailand or Myanmar– and the environment for human rights defenders is increasingly grim. The Trump administration’s lack of interest in human rights and own authoritarian tendencies fuel the long-term trend.

Some hope the CPP may yet pull back a little having made its show of strength. Pressure from diplomats has had some effect in the past. But the broad tendency across the region is undeniable and alarming.

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Political repression under Prime Minister Hun Sen has put the fragile democracy at risk

Op-Ed: The Hindu

Political repression under Prime Minister Hun Sen has put the fragile democracy at risk

Hun Sen bioThe crackdown in Cambodia is taking the form of criminalisation of the opposition and the media by Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of the 2018 national elections. This slide into political regression is particularly troubling, as the country is still recovering from the memory of the genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Cambodia has enjoyed relative prosperity in recent years thanks to the boom in garment exports and tourism; it can ill-afford political unrest. Its democracy too is a work in progress, and while the long-ruling Hun Sen has never been an ideal democrat, in recent years his autocratic tendencies have become increasingly more pronounced. The detention earlier this month of Kem Sokha, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), on charges of treason, was accompanied by circumstances that led to the closure of an independent newspaper. In July, the government promulgated a law that enables the banning of political parties with connections to criminal convicts. Mr. Hun Sen, a former commander of the Khmer Rouge, whose lengthy rule since 1985 is often compared to the tenure of other dictators, is anxious to tighten his grip on the levers of power. Recently he declared his intent to carry on for another two terms. But it was the CNRP that made significant gains in the local body elections this June, even as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) retained a majority of seats.

In his campaign during that election, Mr. Hun Sen barely concealed the instincts of a ruthless dictator when he openly threatened civil war in the event of the CPP losing the elections. Earlier, under its veteran leader Sam Rainsy, who is in self-imposed exile, the CNRP had challenged Mr. Hun Sen’s 2013 re-election and extracted major concessions at the end of a protracted political crisis. The allusion in the latest treason charge is to Mr. Kem Sokha’s comments before an Australian audience some years ago, pointing to the level of desperation in the ruling dispensation. The current political turmoil in Cambodia reflects an ongoing shift in international influence in the decades following the genocide. The U.S. had been closely involved in the restoration of democratic stability in the country, and the Cambodian turnaround is one of the United Nations’ great success stories. But recent years have seen a dramatic rise in Beijing’s bilateral and regional engagement with Phnom Penh, which under Mr. Hun Sen is using the great power rivalry to evade accountability by his regime. Cambodia’s cancellation of the annual joint military exercises with the U.S. this year coincided with the first such engagement with China, underscoring the extent of the changing dynamics of big power diplomacy in Southeast Asia. The ‘America First’ approach under President Donald Trump is not likely to alter this trend. It is left to the international community to keep a sustained focus on Cambodia, and underline how precariously placed the Cambodian recovery still is.

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